Mack the Knife and the Weimar Republic

Most of us have at one time or another hummed along or tapped our foot to the song “Mack the Knife”. “Mack the Knife” has been recorded by everyone from Bobby Darin to Frank Sinatra. My personal favorite is Louis Armstrong’s version.


But “Mack the Knife”, popular as it might be in the United States, is not an American song. It is in fact a song written by Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) for their stage show The Threepenny Opera, which was originally performed in Berlin 1929 (Die Dreigroschenoper), and later became a long-running off-Broadway production in New York City. The Threepenny Opera is based on an English play from 1728 called The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay. The play features thieves, highwaymen, and jailers, which Weill and Brecht turned into characters of the Berlin underworld in the 1920s. Here is Lotte Lenya (1898–1981) singing “Mack the Knife” in its original German, called “Mackie Messer”.


Weill, Brecht and Lenya were active in Germany during the period that is called the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was a democratic parliamentary republic that lasted between 1919 and 1933. It has been given its name from the city of Weimar where its constitution was ratified. Despite its political problems, the Weimar Republic gave rise to a Golden Age of German culture, where many of its most prominent artists and creators were Jews. This was the age of the cabaret, of expressionism and the early movie industry.

The cultural exuberance came crashing down in 1933 when the Nazis took power. According to them the Weimar Republic needed to be destroyed because it was the result of Germany’s humiliating defeat during World War I. Many Jews, among them Weill and Brecht, went into exile and eventually ended up in the United States. Brecht left the United States in 1947 after giving evidence for the House Un-American Activities Committee due to his Communist views. He died in East Berlin three years later. Meanwhile, Weill and Lenya remained in the United States for the rest of their lives.

A touching portrayal of the demise of the Berlin cultural scene of the 1920s can be seen in the movie Adam Resurrected (2008), starring Jeff Goldblum as Adam.

Sources: The Threepenny Opera Kurt Weill Berthold Brecht Lotte Lenya Weimarrepubliken Adam Resurrected

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

Lenin Never Lived in Vienna

In his classic study on scientific paradigms and anomalies, Thomas S Kuhn writes about the issue of preconceived notions and expectations in interpreting our surroundings. He mentions a psychological experiment where a test group were shown a deck of cards where some cards had been slightly altered, for example a card of hearts was colored black instead of red. When shown these altered cards, the test group participants called the cards out as red, despite the fact that they were black. This misidentification was caused by the fact that from previous experience the participants anticipated the cards to be red since the symbol on the card was a heart. Therefore, the brain saw one thing but named it another.

For many years, I saw one thing and named it another. I saw Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, as being in exile in Vienna but I named it Zurich. Let me explain.

One of the first historical topics I took on with interest was the Russian Revolution. I was in high school, had just discovered literature through Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) was my favorite movie. By way of books and films, I discovered Russian history.

On New Year’s Eve in 1992 I was in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day Concert at Musikverein. I remember watching CNN when the news broke that the Soviet Union had been dissolved. The week we spent in Vienna became an interesting blend of the beginning and the end of that Socialist colossus. The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist when we went for coffee at the Café Central, during the early 20th century a hub for the intellectual elite of Europe. Authors, artists, revolutionaries and philosophers frequented the Café Central, many of them Russian.

During the years leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin lived in exile in Europe. He moved between places, such as Munich, Bern, and Zurich. As I read about the causes behind the Russian Revolution and those who played a part in it, I saw all this before me. The only problem was that I always pictured Lenin at the Café Central in Vienna. Consequently, even though I knew intellectually that Lenin never took up residence in Vienna, that was where I pictured him. If someone had asked me about Lenin’s years in European exile, I probably would have begun explaining Vienna to them.

Not until I went to Zurich in 2001 and was taken to the building where Lenin lived and shown the historical marker, did I finally realize that Lenin actually lived in Zurich and not in Vienna. In other words, it took me more than a decade and a trip to Switzerland to be able to put to the side my preconceived notion of what the life of an exiled 20th-century revolutionary was like. It was not until it was pointed out to me that Lenin lived in Zurich, that I, in my mind, could fully comprehend that he did not live in Vienna.

Just like the participants in the psychological study, referred to by Kuhn, who realized that the cards were black and not red only when it was pointed out to them.

IMDB Doctor Zhivago
Encyclopedia Britannica Lenin
Thomas S Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press, 1962)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.


Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity

Science is political. There are no two ways about it. One of the most political of all sciences is historical science. The reason for this is that historical science deals with human activities in the past. Depending on how societies relate to their past actions, those activities are either applauded, derided, revised or embellished.

In our relationship to history and the past, a wish to find out the truth about a certain event is often expressed. Therefore, we, the historians, attempt to recreate the event, as if we were crime scene investigators. We gather the evidence and through the use of historical methodology and theories reach conclusions based on what the evidence tells us. Almost by default, the evidence is scanty, contradictory and tainted. Consequently, the question inevitably arises: Is there such a thing as historical truth?

Merriam-Webster defines truth as

the state of being the case; FACT;


the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality

These definitions make it difficult for an historian to speak of historical truth. Once a moment has come and gone, there is no way of knowing exactly what happened. The truth has dissipated with the moment and the evidence left behind – be it a written document or an eye-witness report – only represents one perspective, often flawed or incomplete, of what has just occurred.

However, Merriam-Webster also defines truth as

a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true

This definition is closer to what the historian deals with, but still does not address the complexity of recreating an historical event.

An historical event consists of the actions of a human individual that has been left behind in writing for the after world. However, the written account that has survived to our time is tainted by the perspective and intentions of the writer. Moreover, when the text is read and interpreted it becomes further tainted by the prejudices and preconceived notions of the reader. So how can we even claim that an event has taken place? And how can we claim to know the course of that event?

Instead of historical truth, historians speak of historical validity. The reason for this is that although the past itself does not change, our knowledge of it does. Historical validity is based in the historian’s interpretation of extant written texts through the application of tools and methods developed by professional historians and by interpreting the texts in relation to other texts. Depending on the results of this type of textual analysis, historical validity, and consequently the knowledge of the past, is subject to change. The possibility for change in what is considered valid is what makes some people suspicious of historical science. More importantly, this possibility is what makes some people revise history to suit their own purposes. For example, it is through the abuse of historical validity that Holocaust deniers have found themselves a quasi-scientific niche.

As humans we have the need to organize, compartmentalize and categorize our surroundings. It is easier to live in a world that can be divided into truths and untruths. However, our world is much more complicated than that, and so is our past.  Therefore, historians speak of historical validity rather than historical truth.

March Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)
Rolf Torstendahl “Metod och forskningsmoral. Reflektioner med anledning av Simon Larssons avhandling”, Historisk tidskrift 132:1 (2012)
Maria Ågren “Synlighet, vikt, trovärdighet – och självkritik: några synpunkter på källkritikens roll i dagens historieforskning”, Historisk tidskrift 125:2 (2005)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

John Steinbeck to the Rescue

Sometimes I wonder if the books I read choose me or if I choose them. The reason I am wondering is because on more than one occasion have I picked up a book, seemingly at random, with the intention of reading it and in it found the solution to a problem I am currently wrestling with in my own writing.

This time it was John Steinbeck who came to the rescue.

When still a teenager, I watched all the movies that James Dean ever made. His life was curt short by a car accident and, therefore, the number of films he starred in were limited. Still, the movies he did make before he died all had an impact on me that stays with me to this day. One in particular that moved me was East of Eden. James Dean’s interpretation of the tormented Cal touched me deeply, as did the overall story of the film. I think the reason why the movie stayed with me is partly because I, as a teenager, grappled with fully comprehending the multi-layered subject matter and partly because I quickly realized that the movie only touches upon a small part of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.

Ever since then I have wanted to read East of Eden. Last week, on my weekly visit to the local bookstore, I found the Centennial Edition (Penguin, 2002) and bought it. When I came home, I began reading it immediately.

What does this have to do with my own writing? I am currently writing a short story where the main character is trying to understand the world view of a person who is insane. What I had trouble describing was how an insane person manages to see him/herself as normal and the surrounding world as abnormal. To my great surprise, and relief, I found the following passage in East of Eden, describing insanity:

No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. [—] You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous. [p. 71]

I will bring this passage with me into my own writing and hopefully I will be one step closer to becoming a better fiction writer when the story is completed.

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.




The Historian as Time Traveler

History is considered the science of the past. By using different methods and theories, the historian interprets past events and presents them to his/her contemporaries with an attempt to explain why they occurred, based in the written texts left behind by the protagonists of the story. To be able to do this, the historian strives to take on the role of the eyewitness, even when an event happened centuries ago in a different part of the world. To be an eyewitness means to be there at the scene as events unfold. For the historian, it means to travel through time in one’s mind.

For an historian, time travel is an important aspect of the research process. To be able to understand and interpret the actions of people in the past, the historian needs to place him/herself in the situation of those people. The historian needs to write history forwards and try not to judge the actions taken, no matter how despicable or amicable, stupid or clever. This is not to say that committed atrocities should be forgiven or dismissed. Neither is it to say that people in the past could not estimate the consequences of their actions. Rather, it is a matter of trying to understand human activity.

In not traveling through time lies the risk of writing history backwards. Perched chronologically in, for example, 2013, one looks back in time and, consciously or not, applies on the historical process the knowledge of how an event played out . A famous example of writing history backwards is how Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister 1937–1940) and Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister 1940–1945, 1951–1955) have been viewed respectively since the end of World War II. Neville Chamberlain has been considered naive in his dealings with Germany, which he probably was. However, this naivete of Chamberlain’s is often based on the assumption that somehow Chamberlain should have known what would play out in the coming years. Meanwhile, Churchill has been considered as the one who saw things for what they were and consequently was able to anticipate what was to come.

Instead of passing judgment and stating who was wrong and who was right, the historian places him/herself in the situation of the people of the past and tries to assess why certain conclusions were drawn. In other words, the historian tries to assess why Chamberlain spoke of “Peace in our time” while Churchill saw war looming on the horizon.

After all, our past was once someone’s future. And there is one thing neither past actors nor historians can do and that is to travel into the future.

Further reading: Marc Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.